Tobii’s eye-tracking technology has been used for years in academic research, in specialized products for people unable to use conventional computer interfaces, and by designers of everything from websites to product packaging. “We built this conceptual prototype to see how close we are to being ready to use eye tracking for the mass market,” says Barclay. “We think it may be ready.”
Manu Kumar, who worked on eye-tracking techniques at Stanford University and now runs the seed-stage venture capital fund K9 Ventures, says that such technology, if well designed, has a lot to offer most computer users. “To computers, humans are really just a big finger; everything is based around that mode of input,” he says. “Using eye tracking increases the bandwidth between the human and the computer.”
But to be successful, a system must use eye gaze the way humans do when interacting face to face, says Kumar: to understand a person’s intention, and not simply as a new way to drive a cursor. “When I press Page Down to scroll text today, the computer has no idea where I had got to and often makes me lose my place,” he says. “When eye gaze is used as an augmented input, you can do things in a more efficient manner.”
Kumar created and tested a feature similar to Tobii’s that automatically scrolled when a person reached the end of a page. To help the user continue scrolling, his version faded out the text that had already been read; it proved popular in user trials, he says. A mapping app that used gaze to zoom was less successful, though, because if the system misjudged the user’s eye position by even a little, the error was magnified.
Tobii and Lenovo are likely to find many ways consumers could use eye-tracking technology, but they will still have to face economic realities. “The key question is, what does it cost?” says Kumar. “I think that it will need to ship at very high volume—likely millions of units—for the hardware to be cheap enough for consumer laptops.”